Magazine article Tikkun

Army Cats

Magazine article Tikkun

Army Cats

Article excerpt

Army Cats by Tom Sleigh Graywolf Press, 2011


IN ARMY CATS, American poet Tom Sleigh takes on the topic of the 2007 Lebanese Civil War not as an excuse for wanton journalistic rubberneck-ing, but as a catalyst for a series of troubled meditations on the nature of "force" within contemporary culture.

Let me explain what I mean by force. To do so requires a look back at the groundbreaking work of philosopher and activist Simone Weil.

Writing in the first year of World War II, in an effort to show that Hit-ler's rise to power was not the anomaly that other intellectuals claimed it to be, Weil composed one of the most famous meditations on violence ever written, "The Iliad or the Poem of Force."

Early in the essay, Weil defines what she means by "force":

To define force-it is that x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to its limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next min-ute there is nobody here at all. This is the spectacle The Iliad never wearies of showing us.

Warfare for Weil is not a continuation of politics by other means but a grimly relentless process of dehumanization, unchanged since the time of Homer. Anyone who sees it otherwise is dismissed by the author as a "dreamer." Weil does not care to offer a nuanced mediation on the role of violence in human nature, and she surely would not view technological progress as having done anything to change the state of things. (What better exemplifies Weil's notion of force than an American drone-piloted many thousands of miles away by a twenty-twoyear-old in California-unleashing its missiles on an al-Qaida safe house outside Karachi?)

Weil scholars often cite "The Iliad or the Poem of Force" as prefiguring the turn toward mysticism and spirituality that characterized her late work, but the basic stance of the essay is one of simple astonishment and disgust at the relentless magnitude of the human capacity for violence. In other words, Weil writes in the tradition of the Jeremiad rather than that of the epic. So too does Tom Sleigh in this new collection of poems. Weil and Sleigh both also remind us that astonishment and disgust can be powerful rhetorical tools when artfully employed.

The initiating subject matter of Army Cats, Sleigh's seventh book, is the most recent of a seemingly endless series of internecine conflicts that have plagued Lebanon for much of the last halfcentury. Working as a journalist based in Beirut during the summer of 2007, Sleigh was able to witness the escalation of the turmoil firsthand, yet the poems of Army Cats do not focus on the war's political implications. We do not hear of Hezbollah's attempts to unseat the elected government of the country, or of the bloody siege of Nahr al-Bahred Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli; we are instead offered a series of portraits and snapshots, pictures of the war's human cost rendered in sometimes excruciatingly intense close-ups. Here is the closing of a poem entitled "Refuge":

... her face twisted up

by scars is a face of scars that's only


her face that I look at as she smiles first

indulgently, then back at herself as


beseechingly asking mom for approval.

The woman she will be tells her that

she's pretty

such a pretty girl, and the child she is

as the mother knows it too, she nods

her head

and for that moment the three of them


This is harrowing description; the use of repetition, enjambment, nearrhyme, and (especially) the bravura syntax of the opening sentence combine to an effect of sorrowful claustrophobia. We can no more stop looking at the girl's disfigured face than the speaker can. And the tension of the poem is only released via the grim irony of the speaker speculating upon the girl's future-"the woman that she will be tells her that she's pretty. …

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